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A Guide to Ballistic & Tactical Eyewear

Ballistic Eyewear like the ESS Crossbow provide protection from extreme impact hazards found on the battfield

Ballistic Eyewear like the ESS Crossbow provide protection from extreme impact hazards found on the battfield

Although the U.S. Military is drawing down in several areas (Afghanistan for example), the importance of ballistic-rated eye protection is not going away and has in fact become a mainstay of our armed forces. In addition, the use of ballistic-rated eyewear has started to trickle down into non-military applications.

What is ballistic & tactical eyewear, & how does it differ from other eyewear?

In basic terms, ballistic refers to a free-moving object, such as a missile or cannon, fired from a fixed site. The term tactical refers to activity, such as bombing or using weapons, that usually supports military operations. Ballistic and tactical eyewear protects wearers from the dangers associated with these and similar situations.

In addition, ballistic and tactical eyewear provides additional protection in harsh military environments, such as the Middle East with its intense heat and frequent dust storms, and it does so at a standard well beyond those found for industrial-rated safety eye protection.

While ballistic-rated safety glasses and sunglasses are becoming one of the fastest growing segments of protective eyewear both inside and outside the military, there still seems to be a considerable amount of confusion over what actually classifies eyewear as ballistic rated.  The two terms are often used interchangeably in casual conversation, but not all ballistic eyewear is necessarily intended for tactical use, and not all tactical eyewear is ballistic (though it should be).

The U.S. Military has issued rigorous ballistic tests that safety eyewear and sunglasses worn by military personnel have to pass. These tests, conducted in a field environment, include subjecting eyewear to projectiles at over four times the velocity of normal ANSI Z87.1 testing, the standard for industrial safety eyewear. ANSI (American National Standards Institute) tests projectiles at 150 fps, while the military requires testing projectiles at 650 (+/- 10) fps for spectacles and 550 fps for goggles.

Smith Elite Eyewear Ballistic Eyewear Chart

Smith Elite Eyewear provided this chart to quickly show the differences between ANSI Z87.1 and the Military Ballistic Standards.

According to The Army Vision and Conservation Readiness Program, in addition to impact safety requirements, the U.S. Army also wants eyewear to be functional, reasonably comfortable, to not have bright colors or distracting design, and to be able to be disinfected.

The military’s standards are outlined in the MCEP (Military Combat Eye Protection) Program, created by the Army’s PEO (Program Executive Office) Soldier authority, and the two main Military Ballistic Standards used for testing are MIL-PRF-31013 (spectacles) and MIL-DTL-43511D (goggles).

The Advanced Planning Briefing for Industry describes MCEP as “the umbrella program” with the purpose of:

  • Protecting eyes from external hazards including fragmentation, electromagnetic radiation, wind, sand and dust.
  • Providing vision correction to accommodate those needing corrective lenses.
  • Encouraging use in the field by providing variety in choices of sizes and styles.
  • Encouraging feedback to promote improved design.
Oakley SI Ballistic M Frame 3.0

Oakley Tactical eyewear like the Ballistic M Frame 3.0 is designed to fit under communication headsets used by today’s modern soldiers.

This briefing also details the requirements for submitting product to be considered for APEL (Authorized Protective Eyewear List), which is modified yearly as models improve and new models are submitted. For more information on MCEP Standards, see “Understanding U.S. Military Eye Protection (MCEP) Standards.”

(Note: In the European military, standards are set up a bit differently with the European EN166 standard identifying four levels of ballistic protection.)

The Advanced Planning Briefing for Industry also states that all APEL eyewear must bear the APEL logo, which is the single-best way to know eyewear is approved for military standards.

The military insists that personnel only wear approved eye protection not simply to have another regulation on its books, but because there is a significant need for a protection standard beyond what typically works for the civilian population.

How great is the need for ballistic and tactical eyewear in the military?

Military Eye Injury

Congress increased battlefield eye injury research to $10 million this year.

The Official Homepage of the United States Army recently published an article titled “Eye doctors teach combat trauma management” that illustrated the tremendous need for ballistic and tactical eyewear protection for individuals in the armed forces.

Consider the following information presented by these doctors:

  • Combat ocular trauma has stabilized due to widely implemented eye protection in the military.
  • The vast majority of combat eye injuries are due to explosion from high energy projectiles and improvised explosive devices rather than from gun shots or explosions.
  • Combat ocular trauma is more complicated and more likely to involve more than one body system than is civilian ocular trauma.

And the U.S. Congress apparently agrees with the importance of better eye care for our nation’s military since it has budgeted $10M for research.

The article “Congress Budgets $10M for Eye-Injury Research,” says that Defense Department statistics show the following startling data:

  • About 15% of injuries from battlefield trauma are to the eyes.
  • In just the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, there were more than 200,000 eye-related injuries to military personnel.
  • About 75% of military personnel suffering traumatic brain injury also have eyesight problems.
  • Approximately 70% of our total sensory awareness comes from eyesight, making vision the most critical of the five senses, especially in combat conditions.

These statistics show the necessity of this funding and stress the importance of research for treating eye injury. They also serve to emphasize the importance of prevention through ballistic and tactical eyewear.

The need for ballistic and tactical eye protection extends well beyond military application, though, and into many areas of civilian life as well.  We’ll explore this in the next segment.  To be continued…

How To Identify Ballistic Rated Eyewear

What’s the difference between Ballistic Eyewear & Safety Glasses?

Ballistic Eyewear from Smith Optics Elite

Ballistic rated sunglasses are a popular choice for todays military and law enforcement personnel.

Ballistic rated safety glasses and sunglasses are becoming one of the fastest growing segments of protective eyewear, however there seems to be a considerable amount of confusion on what actually classifies eyewear as ballistic rated.

I’ve read several comments in forums, blog posts and customer emails where the “Z87″ markings on a frame or lens are mistakenly interpreted as proof of ballistic certification. The “Z87″ markings on safety glasses and goggles indicate the eyewear is compliant with the ANSI Z87.1-2003 High Impact and ANSI/ISEA Z87.1-2010 industrial safety standard for eye protection. Although the Military Ballistic Standard 662 uses some test similar to those used in the “Z87″ standards, the requirements are much different.

There are two main Military Ballistic Standards used for testing, MIL-PRF-31013 (spectacles) and MIL-DTL-43511D (goggles). Here’s a chart from Smith Optics Elite showing the differences in projectile size, weight and velocity for each test.

ballistic eyewear velocity standards

As you can see in the above chart there is a significant difference between the Military Ballistic Standards and ANSI Z87.1, in fact the MIL-PRF-31013 test is producing approximately 7 times more impact energy than the ANSI Z87.1 standard.

How to identify Ballistic Rated Eyewear?

Unfortunately verifying your protective eyewear is ballistic certified is not always easy. Unlike the ANSI standards, which requires all safety glasses and goggles to be marked with some “Z87″ indicator, the Military Ballistic Standards do NOT have a marking requirement. In other words the military currently doesn’t require ballistic eyewear to be labeled in any manner to verify compliance with its ballistic standards. With that being said, most if not all ballistic rated eyewear will be marked with “Z87″, since they already exceed the requirements of that standard. Keep in mind the standards are developed by separate entities and certification of one doesn’t automatically mean the certification of the other.

*Update: Future APEL regulations will require “APEL” to be marked on the frame for all APEL approved eyewear. The exact time frame for implementation of this requirement is unknown, however some manufacturers such as Wiley-X have already started to mark some of their certified eyewear with “APEL”.

You should also check the U.S. Army’s official APEL (Authorized Protective Eyewear) List for a comprehensive listing of approved ballistic eyewear for combat operations. If you’re serving in the U.S. Military you can only wear the ballistic eyewear shown on the APEL list, so make sure you have a current version. Most manufacturers will list which of their styles meet/exceed Military Ballistic Standards on the product package and sales descriptions. If you’re unable to find certification information on the box or sales descriptions I recommend contacting the manufacturer and request they produce a certificate verifying their eyewear has passed the Military Ballistic Standards test. Without a certificate you should consider looking for another product.

Where can I find Ballistic Rated Eyewear?

To make things a little easier, we’ve created a Ballistic Eyewear Section on our website that allows you to sort all of our ballistic rated eyewear by name or price.

Here’s a list of popular brands that offer ballistic rated styles:

Smith Optics Elite and Kryptek Create Limited Edition Sunglasses

Kryptek Sunglasses in Action

Kryptek Sunglasses and Highlander Camouflage in action.

Recently the Smith Optics Elite Division teamed up with Kryptek Outdoor Group to create the first pair of sunglasses to feature Kryptek’s Highlander camouflage pattern. 

Based upon the popular Smith Elite Lockwood sunglasses, which feature a classic, yet modern profile. These limited edition sunglasses exceed MilSpec level protection while being seamlessly wrapped in the proven Kryptek Highlander pattern. The Highlander pattern is designed for the soldier or hunter in transitional terrain with the purpose of improving stealth and enhancing survivability, ultimately increasing the lethality of the wearer. Smith’s Brown Polarized lenses will keep your targets in focus while reducing eyestrain with glare-cutting filtration.

Limited Edition Smith Elite Lockwood Ballistic Sunglasses with Kryptek Camo Frame and Brown Polarized Lenses

Only 500 Kryptek sunglasses were made, and no two pairs are the same!


Smith Optics Elite Skull PatchSafety Glasses USA is honored to be one of  the few online vendors authorized to sell these limited edition sunglasses. As an added bonus, we’re including a free Smith Optics Elite “Skull” Moral Patch with every pair of Kryptek Sunglasses. This patch measures 2×2 inches and features a hook and loop backing. Perfect for attaching to tactical gear or clothing. You can learn more and purchase the Kryptek Sunglasses here.

Key Eyewear Features:

  • Limited Edition. Only 500 pair made.
  • No two frames look exactly the same.
  • Free Smith “Skull” Patch with every pair.
  • Lightweight frames made from impact resistant materials.
  • Tapered Lens Technology (TLT) corrects lens distortion.
  • Lenses provide 100% protection from harmful UVA/UVB/UVC rays.
  • Made in USA.
  • Compliant with ANSI Z87.1-2010 and MIL-PRF-31013.